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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Samuel Barber, Medea, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, A Hand of Bridge, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose


When you look back on how you discovered certain composers when younger, sometimes you find it was nearly a matter of chance. When I was young and first exploring the wide expanses of regions, composers, stylistic schools and periods,    , budget labels and cutouts most certainly allowed someone with limited resources like me to take a chance on something unknown and not empty my pockets at the same time. 

In this way I came to appreciate American composer Samuel Barber. One first exposure was Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing selected parts from his ballet Medea and another was a budget recording of his Knoxville Summer of 1915. Munch's "Medea" was a wonder"Knoxville" was a decent enough version to get the idea, though I've forgotten who did it. I had to sel;l it before heading off the graduate school in 1981.

By the time I had absorbed both these works/performances I was impressed with how Barber managed to create very memorable New Music while in his own way acting with originality and verve in a Modern-Romantic mode. That I heard but could not put a name to it until I read about him in a Contemporary music monograph. 

As time has passed these two works have lightened my days considerably the more I continued to listen. And as time went by I subsequently embraced his "Adagio," his Violin Concerto, etc. Happily in Barber for me was a very lyrical voice that did not sound retrograde or old fashioned. He was his own outstanding self and I was happy to find this out.

So I was glad when I heard that Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project had released a volume of Barber gems, namely the complete score of the ballet Medea, a new recorded version of Knoxville with soprano Kristen Watson, and then a ten minute mini-operatic work "A Hand of Bridge" from 1950.

The performance of "Knoxville" leaves nothing to be desired. It breathes in yearning memory of a time past, yet basks in the light of the timeless beauty of summer magic. It reaffirms the highly engaging, vivid enchantment I felt on first hearing the work. BMOP show us a present-day balance that only serves to increase our feeling of timelessness. Wonderful.

The complete "Medea" in nine movements brings to us a relevance I originally felt on the Munch excerpt, perhaps with a bit less fire that the old recording but then with a nicely Apollonian central balance that gathers the total together in all nine movements and gives us a full earful of the evolving totality, the wholeness of the complete version.

The bonus 1959 "A Hand of Cards" has a nice expressivity to it and makes us appreciate further Barber's natural affinity for vocal writing.

All told this gives us carefully involved, painstaking versions of the works. They bear up on repeated hearings, giving us a Barber that sounds as fresh today as the days when he first wrote these masterful works.

The Suite, Music by Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, Jose Elizondo, Anthony R. Green, The Lowell Chamber Orchestra, Orlando Cela


Just what goes with what can be a central aspect of coming up with an illuminating program of music. That's so with The Lowell Chamber Orchestra under Orlando Cela and their recent album entitled The Suite (Navona NV 6324). The central idea is that a chamber orchestra and solo flute(s) can address the multi-movement suite form, that Baroque classics of the genre can compare and contrast with several contemporary Modern tonal analogs.

And the truth is that setting a kind of mutually reflecting historical mirror one against the other gives us some in-depth chances to contemplate being here in the present as well as embracing how humanity has been in a musically astute past--and how it still speaks to us, still matters. 

We get that with a happy and spirited performance of the Telemann "Overture Suite in E minor" which is new to me but a gem nonetheless, performed with a happy zeal. That is followed by Bach and his marvelous "Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor," an absolutely ravishing thing played in a gamy, rather Modern fashion, spawning past and preparing the listener for the two Modern-day suites that follow. Now I might have heard more Baroquely exacting performances of this suite, but this approach opens us up to a more comparative way to think about it all, so it fits the context well, and indeed is pure pleasure to hear in any event.

I can't say I know much about our present-day terpsichorians (the latter in the sense that the suites both have like the venerable works a connection with the dance one way or another). With the Jose Elizondo "Recuerdos Estivos (Summer Memories)" and the Anthony E. Green "The Green Double: A Historical Dance Suite," both have a great deal of charm and a very personal slant that is neither directly backward looking nor oblivious to the form and its ancient roots.

"Summer Memories" do seem to fill the air with a kind of halcyonic nostalgia that nonetheless avoid a haze of sentimentality. Nonetheless there is a kind of rhapsodic Romanticism joined to a kind of post-Baroque view that sets it apart nicely.

Anthony R. Green's "Green Double" has an effusive quality as well, but then a bit more delicate a bouquet of sonic sonance. It lingers in the mind as an atmospheric--yet all of it does in its own way. The eleven minute final movement gives us a playful contemporaneity that satisfies and sends us on our way with a smile.

It is a program to take you into the present by way of a retrospected past. Cela and the Lowell Chamber Orchestra bring us a fresh view of where the Suite has been and something of where it seems to be going. Bravo!

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Clifford Crawley, Moods and Miniatures, Maureen Volk


There are some composers out there right now, as pretty much at any time, that can make their importance known to you with just a few notes, for they have a unique character that comes through in a rapid way. That is true for me of the English-Canadian musical stalwart Clifford Crawley (1929-2016). I am listening happily to an anthology of his work that came in the mail recently. It is aptly titled Moods and Miniatures (Centrediscs  CMCCD 28621). 

He was born in England and taught and composed there from 1952 through to 1973, when he came to Canada and taught Composition and Music Education at Queen's University for the remainder of his working life. He came to know pianist Maureen Volk on moving to St. John's in 2002. 

Maureen heads up the ensemble on piano for this lovely collection of compositions. The solo piano works are the bedrock showcases in many ways for his very characteristic, tonal, post-Impressionistic, post-Satie-n playful and whimsical expressions. Ms. Volk handles them all with a beautiful sympathy that makes them all shine--"iPieces for Piano," "Toccatas for Piano," "Twelve Preludes" and then along with Beverley Diamond the "Kalamaika: Suite for Piano Duet." It is a furtherance of Satie, Ravel-Debussy brilliance taken in a personal direction that has a real charm, that is a true pleasure to hear.

This one should appeal to a wide swatch of music lovers. It makes me want to hear more! Do not miss this!

But for that matter the chamber pieces included here for clarinet and piano ("Ten A Penny Pieces"), and for flute, clarinet and piano ("pieces-of-eight") are equally original, personal and filled with whimsy and humor.

No matter how you want to slice the order of the music, this is a fine album, showing us a musical sould fully oroginal and filled with brilliance, I would love to hear more of Crawley after so happily digesting this one! Highly recommended.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Martin Scherzinger, Scherzinger Etudes, (For Piano), Bobby Mitchell


What New Music can be has become extended, become more opened up over the past 50 years so that one can never quite know what to expect next. That is not a bad thing. In the case of the music up today it is a very good thing. Scherzinger Etudes (New Focus Recordings FCR295) reads the type at the bottom of the cover. Look further inside at the liners and you verify that the composer is Martin Scherzinger (to spell out first and last names) and the pianist performing the Etudes is Bobby Mitchell. All that may mean something to you or possibly not--it depends of course on your. personal circle of compositions and artists. 

What matters here of course is the specific composition and performance, both of which are outstanding. The music is not what you might expect in that it is unmistakably of our time, yet not "Modern" in the genre specific capital /M/ sense. In the most obvious sense this is not "bleep bloop" rangy Serialism, which is what one expected to hear nearly universally years back. It is tonal and it often has the full-expression keyful of music that Schumann, Liszt and Rachmaninov made their own. Yet the melodic-harmonic unfolding is more primal and post-Romantic, almost Folksy, Lisztian.

And most importantly the music sounds very comfortable being what it is, which is original and lyrically effusive while also being virtuoso oriented in the best pianistic sense. It is hard to play! And Bobby Mitchell sounds great in how he performs it with elan, with excitement.

The composer tells us in the liners that the music could be seen as a kind of "musique concrete topologique of found musical sound." By that he means that "These etudes are rewritings of the music of Schumann, Couperin, Paganini, Sgambati, Brahms and others." The music is subject to transformation as in a kind of musical "hall of mirrors" to give them a newness, a hearing "as it for the first time." Those insightful words help us undestand what the composer was after, and at the same time it does not at all take away from the originality of the music as we hear it. Not at all. And indeed the key is "as if for the first time," for that is absolutely the case.

It is an excellent example of how endless music can be. There is nothing new under the sun? No, we can never run out of possibilities and here is an unexpected one, a classic-in-the-making, an important work of interest to anyone who loves the piano, who loves the new, or for that matter, perhaps to anyone musical! Strongly recommended. Molto bravo!

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Daniel Lippel, Johann Sebastian Bach, aufs Lautenwerk, The Well-Tempered Guitar


As one grows older, if one has taken advantage of the availability of the music of Bach over the years, Bach speaks to the listening self with ever more clarity and movement, so that at least for me Bach takes a central place often enough among various musical  things and so I gain ever more from the hearing.

So today there is a recent volume of Bach that speaks volumes to me--namely Daniel Lippel's The Well Tempered Guitar, aufs Lautenwerk (New Focus Recordings FCR 920 MF18). It is, as the subtitle suggests, music Bach intended for the lute. Adapting it to the guitar involves foremost a guitar-centered aural sense, a sensitivity to making the glorious music sound anew. Daniel does just that.

If you are like me some of this music will be very familiar--through hearing guitar or lute versions or even arrangements for other instruments. Others might seem somewhat less familiar, to me anyway. All is welcome, deeply satisfying on multiple listens. So we get the five movement Suite in Em BWV 996, the four movement Sonata in Cm BWV 997 and the three movement Prelude, Fuga & Allegro in Eb BWV 998.

Daniel Lippel gives us a kind of whole cloth reading of the music, with equal weight given to each part in counterpoint and/or stretching into aural space. The line weaving is smoothly phrased so we can take it all in as the unity it was intended to be. There's not a lot of rubato and as you listen it seems quite right, quite as it no doubt sounded to Bach as he conceived it.

This is extraordinarily deep music in the end, extraordinarily phased and sounded by Maestro Lippel. Very recommended.

Monday, July 12, 2021

John-Henry Crawford, Dialogo, with Victor Santiago Asuncion, Brahms, Ligeti, Shostakovich


Young cellist John-Henry Crawford has a phenomenal way about him. There comes an album by him that gives us a bird's eye view of his brilliance. It is dubbed Dialogo (Orchid Classics ORC 100166). The title makes sense because it is a matter of John-Henry engaging in a vivid dialog with three compositions, and for two out of the three, with the pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion.

It turns out that the works chosen for the program seem pretty ideal in terms of giving us various sides and moods for the cellist to dwell within. And the music happens to be exceedingly beautiful anyway.

The Op. 99 Brahms Sonata for Piano and Cello has so much wonderful about it at base. Crawford attacks the cello part with a beautifully singing tone, a variable vibrato that brings the sound into various poetically aural places, and an intonation perfection that anybody with good ears will hearken to and appreciate. Asuncion returns the aural volleys with a widely subtle variability and a superb sense of touch and articulation that set us into a happy place from first to last. Anyone who knows and loves this sonata will recognize what a marvelous reading this is, surely one of the very best I have heard and I have heard more than a few.

Gyorgy Ligeti's Sonata for Solo Cello gets exceptional treatment by Crawford. The very sophisticated bowing demands and melodic complexities are taken in stride by the cellist. And remarkably he manages to retain his signature singing vibrancy throughout, so that it is both very Modern but also very lyrical.

Lastly the Shostakovich Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor brings to us a very strongly tempered, boldly outlined unravelling of the many brilliant twists and turns of the four movement work. There is more strength than delicacy perhaps but that is no doubt a good thing for the insights one can gain by hearing it all in this way, full strength as it were. The robust reading seems right, but then too it is not at a maximum assertive level either, so it all makes sense.

Get this one and hear a wonderful young cellist open up new avenues to classic works. Do not miss it.

Kareem Roustom, Kinan Abou-Afach, Words Adorned, The Crossing, Donald Nally


The combination of Classical elements and local musical traditions is nothing new. Of course you can go back to the earliest church music and sometimes find local song woven into chant form, or Papa Haydn taking on regional folk forms to suit his ends, not to mention musical Nationalism as it came into vogue in the later 19th Century through to the Modern era.

For all that the possibilities remain as open-ended as ever. As if to remind us of such things, there is a recent release of Andalusian-poetry-based music meeting New Music called Words Adorned (Navona NV6356).

Andalusia is the Southernmost community in peninsular Spain, which historically was where Moors once prevailed, ruling the region from the 8th to the 15th centuries. With them came a vibrant Arabic literature and music. 

From that comes a forward looking musical program featuring the renowned choral group The Crossing under the direction of Donald Nally. Add to that the very capable instrumental ensemble Al-Bustan Takht consisting of oud, violin, drums, etc., and the very beautiful lead vocals of Dalal Abu-Amneh. All this is under the astute general musical direction of Hanna Khoury.

The music center around two song settings with composition-arrangements of Andalusian poetry. Kareem Roustom and Kinan Abou-afach each give us a compelling suite of songs that both takes inspiration from large group Andalusian music (at least as I have heard it) but also then interject elements of Classical Modernity. I have never heard a more interesting combination of old and new, classical and contemporary when it comes to the Arabic diaspora. The music is superbly written and excellently performed.

The program ends with "When He Appeared," a traditional Muwashshah very nicely played and sung. I believe I still have a recording of Oum Kalthoum doing this. The version here rivals that, which is saying something.

All goes wonderfully well in this program. I do not hesitate to recommend it to you highly. It will give you a musically astute extension of traditional Andalusian song into the present and future of Modern Classical.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Ofer Pelz, Trinite, Meitar Ensemble


No doubt it is time for something different, something notable in the latest High Modern realms. I have just the thing. Ofer Pelz, an imaginative sound color composer, steps forth with a series of prepared piano-centered chamber works that celebrates an eight year collaboration with the Israel-based ensemble Meitar Ensemble. The album is entitled Trinite (New Focus Recordings FCR 303).

The opening salvo rivets the listening self in a dynamic, rhythmically complex dynamo of prepared piano amplified with contact mikes that also trigger percussion instruments. All is nicely performed by Amit Dolberg, who deftly handles the complex multiple layers of gestural expressions.

From there we go on to four more chamber works, each a special sound world unto itself.

So we experience the expressively hushed "Chinese Whispers" for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, prepared piano and amplification. It plays further upon the sorts of atmospherics Feldman and Crumb did so well. Pelz finds his own way into the sound labyrinth possibilities. The remaining four works continue in the color-atmospheric zone each in their own way, with impressive eloquence, with convincing sound personality and sensitive performances that do the music full justice.

So we come to appreciate "Convergence" for alto flute and electronics, "marchons, marchons" for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and prepared piano, and finally the two movements of "Blanc sur Blanc" for flute, clarinet, prepared piano and amplified string quartet.

It is just what you need for some refreshing poetic forays into timbral brilliance. Bravo.

Sparks, Vol II, Works for Orchestra, New Music, Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, Stanislav Vavrinek, Jiri Petrolik


Sometimes an anthology in the New Music realm can let you explore a lot of New Music that you might not otherwise get a chance to hear. That is certainly true of a collection of works for orchestra entitled Sparks Vol II (Navona NV6337). On it we have eight relatively brief works by as many composers, all Contemporary, some covered previously on these pages, others not. The Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanislav Vavrinek or Jiri Petrolik do each of the works justice with earnest and lively readings.

Some of the works sound more relatively High Modern than others, though in common is a kind of orchestral Expressionism that is tonal with varying degrees of dissonance and melodic centralism. I found the best way to listen to this one was to relax all preconceived expectations as to what this sort of grouping might sound like. And then you get eight composers following their own muse. John Franek sounds the most Modern, and I have much appreciated Rain Worthington and John A. Carollo on these pages more than once--the new works by them here continue to intrigue my ears and form high points in the program.

On the other hand there are no "dogs" in the collection. Each composer has something substantial to say. And in the process you get to know something of the orchestral music of Dave Dexter,  William C. White, Simon Andrews, Allen Brings, and Jeff Mangels.

As the liners tell us, everything is of the 21st Century, all make up possibilities in Post-Modern music. The format of the miniature avoids typical concerns with long0form symphonic structure. And that is very refreshing in itself. Each composer puts him or herself into it and the program never flags, thankfully.

This sort of totality is what we come to expect from the Navona label (and Parma recordings in general). There is no nonsense, no compromise and an insistence on avoiding some kind of contemporary conformity. If you want to take a pretty deep dive into our current century, you cannot go wrong with this anthology. I am enjoying it myself. Very recommended.